Since 2010 the BRICS grouping has developed as a focus of organisation among emerging regional and international powers. That it has come to in existence is indicative of a broader shift towards a multipolar world in international affairs. The success of BRICS so far other than as a novel attempt at reorientation of states away from Western led and dominated international organisations is disputed, nonetheless, it is an increasingly significant grouping and which is sufficiently attractive for other states to express interest in membership.
BRICS purpose and multipolarity
BRICS came into existence as a response to change in the post-Cold War international order and a belief in the necessity for the realisation of multiple and regional centres of power. As Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa have grown in economic, political and strategic strength they have begun to weaken the global hegemony of the USA and its ability to broadly determine how states develop and what economic and governance models they pursue. In response BRICS are, in effect, at the forefront of pursuing a multipolar world.
Broadly defined, multipolarity, is the international relations theory that (1) states and regional powers normatively operate in particular environments and spheres of influence, (2) that these are where states should operate, and (3) self-limit their involvement in affairs internationally as no one state or culture should predominate to the detriment of another regional power. Such a model if not in totality present to the world today is increasingly tested and moves away from American led unipolarity.
BRICS states and political leaders such as Vladimir Putin advocate that no-one nation should consider itself to be indispensable or have a right to determine how the international order should be set or argue for one form of socio-economic or political system as universally applicable to all states. In essence multipolarity offers the opportunity for affairs to be dealt with at a local level according to principles of subsidiarity and in keeping with the cultural and religious identity and ways of thinking of the local people.
Future of BRICS and membership criteria
Speculation has focused on the vision which BRICS seeks to pursue in the long term and even the capability to pursue it in the context of the strength of the existing American led order especially as mediated via institutions and groups such as the G7 and G12. Critics consider that at this juncture and into the future there is a limited focus to BRICS’ activity and that as an organisation it lacks a raison d’etre other than as a counter to US dominance. The same might, however, be said of NATO’s contemporary role since it has lost its major purpose as a defence alliance following the end of the USSR and Warsaw Pact military alliance. Moreover, it is perhaps unsurprising that points of critique emerge given that a pluralistic type of institution like BRICS has not previously come into existence without the coercive strength of an imperial/colonial structure.
One means to provide a more clarified and deeper vision for BRICS could be through gradually widening its membership and extending its knowledge base and the talent pool from which it can draw. It seems appropriate that BRICS could expand to involve those nations which are close to being ready to act as regional powers. In this context we can consider those currently largely non-aligned nations and whose population size and influence predicates their potential inclusion. I suggest those most likely at this time to join might be called the 100-200 million club or those non-aligned nations whose populations are between 100-200 million people:
Membership of the BRICS community is not reliant on size of population — South Africa is dwarfed in comparisons with the demographics of the BRIC states — however as one of the most dynamic economies on the African continent and its strategic geographical location have ensured its involvement with the group. We ought also to note that gaining BRICS membership is reliant upon an outlook broadly sympathetic with the notion of multipolarity and willingness to craft new ways of acting in international affairs.
The Philippines, for example, as a long standing ally of the USA might struggle to reorient itself away from a commitment to the American paradigm especially in the context of shared involvement in military activities. Conversely the broadly Catholic cultural and religious identity which the Philippines shares with Brazil could increase the likelihood of its involvement with BRICS, however. Each of these 100-200 club nations also has to have the realistic capability to act as a distinctive actor in the BRICS project. Bangladesh and Pakistan may feel challenged by the strategic and economic power of India were they to become members.
We ought also consider what realistically does bind a wider BRICS partnership together. Other roughly equivalent organisations such as the G7 or G12 consist of members with a shared level of economic development and commitment to a so-called liberal democratic capitalist paradigm consolidated since the Second World War. In this context of binding states together a strong degree of realism is present with the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, under no illusions as to the challenges and practical difficulties involved in moving to a multipolar world and in which BRICS offers a distinctive contribution to this vision.
Lavrov emphasised in a April 2016 meeting of the Russian Council on Foreign and Defence Policies that it will be a `transition to polycentric architecture [which] should be ideally based on the interaction of leading centers of power in the interest of finding joint solutions to global problems‘ but that it will likely be a process of `unprecedented difficulty…[requiring]…a fundamentally new line of responsibility, wisdom and political will‘. We begin to comprehend that at least for the `R’ of BRICS there is an awareness of the substantial challenges involved in order to act differently and distinctly — moving away from assuming that there is necessarily one way of resolving challenges in the international order. Paradoxically this could be the key to the continuing purpose of BRICS: as we have for so long experienced the dominance of just one or other Western power in the twentieth century — whether British or American — to experience something new and distinct is shocking at an ontological level to many in the West and especially when western peoples’ begin to grasp how other nations wish to explore and build alternate means for the resolution of local, foreign, economic and international affairs. In this context we perhaps should not expect immediate results or one particular vision for BRICS given the geopolitical order has been fixed to certain biases for over a century.
Kristian Girling is a freelance writer and a Post-doctoral Research Fellow at Heythrop College, University of London.